The old year is just about to become history and a new year would usher in. This is about the best time perhaps to look back on all that has happened to sports in general in the country. Indeed, not every sport courts success. But if there is one that has ever been chasing old glory for years now then it has to be only Indian hockey.
Seldom have we seen and heard of a sport that promises much but delivers little. From dizzying heights in fame and achievements to disappointing lows now have been the oscillations of Indian hockey if one compares to those early 20th century when the sport had few challengers to India in the world and to the current times when disappointment engulfs quite easily. India was symbolic of all that was supreme in hockey. Indeed, with eight gold medals in Olympics between 1928 and 80 there was little to look beyond hockey whenever discussions on Indian sports of that era came up.
Today Indian hockey does not strictly have a premier position even in Asia. True, the Asian champions trophy joint win with Pakistan this year is some comfort but the Jakarta Asian Games brought us behind Japan and Malaysia, the former winning the gold for the first time. The team, which was the defending champion after having won the gold medal in Incheon after gap of 16 years, even lost to Malaysia.
Now the latest in Bhubaneshwar has been another back breaker. So much has been done, so many overseas coaches have come in and gone before India again deciding on its own native, Harendra Singh to take charge of the affairs of the side. Yet, the result as of now remains unchanged. Why is this uncertainty continuing, is the big question.
There was a time when Indian hockey was considered poetry in motion. Such was the lucidity in the players' movements, harmony on the field and magic of the stickwork and of course seeing India win, everything was an enthralling experience. Not many would have seen the exploits of our greats like K D Singh Babu or Dhyan Chand of the past, men who mesmerised opposition with their stick-wizadry.
There is a story of how Dhyan Chand's stick was even checked to see why the ball always remained glued to it! Such was the mastery that words failed to describe the magic they created on the field. No wonder they played in the period when Indian hockey was right there at the top. Down the years there were stalwarts like Ashok Kumar, Balbir Singh sr, Harcharan Singh, Govinda, Peter, Mohammed Shahid, Dhanraj Pillay and the lot who had done wonders.
What was common to most of them was that they played in an era when hockey was still played on grass. It was a sight to behold to see players weave around with utmost coordination for the final assault. In comparison today's hockey is a far cry.
Hockey on astroturf is a different proposition, it is an evolvement that needed skills of different kind. True the end target is always getting the ball into the goal but the work-up towards that end no longer is about silken stick work or zig-zag runs but precision hitting (read pass) and to get the ball to the right man, at the right place and at the right time! It is so much about mathematical calculation, a chapter perhaps from geometry!
There is certain charm in this too because after all everything has to fall in place. Besides modern hockey is also about supreme fitness, athleticism and speed. One step behind a rival raider is enough for the damage to wreck an end. Clashes then can be like lightening-strikes, sharp and defining. Hockey thus changed, perspectives changed but perhaps India was late to make the necessary adjustments, if one were to believe experts.
None other India's former Technical Director, Rick Charlesworth, the Australian great believed that India failed to keep their focus intact when the sport changed from grass to astrosurface play. The great player said in an interview to a national paper that hockey came from the sub-continent, spread around. Everyone had looked to India to learn the art but where the learners went on to master the sport India had remained stagnant so to say.
Where countries in Europe aside from Australia and rest went for astrosurfaces in a big way, India lagged., nay Asia lagged it must be said., As it happened and Charlesworth did not have to state this, circumstances bared them all, defeats abounded, bore into the psyche of the players and coaches. Slowly but steadily the downswing began. The search was for the light at the end of the tunnel. Such was the plight. Charlesworth still is an optimist and thinks that Indian hockey is gaining ground again and is on the right track.
That may be a heartening optimism from an expert but the search for glory continues. Clearly the Bhubaneshwar experience must have been a great set back. Losing to Netherlands is not new but failing to progress and exiting before the semi-final meant the 43 year-wait for a success in this premier event will continue.
It was in 1975 in Malaysia that India had won its first and only world cup. Ever since it has been a sob story and this time too, none signifying this better than Coach Harendra himself when at the end of play he accused the Umpires for India's plight! That the FIH CEO Mr Thierry Weil had to correct the situation and point out Harendra's indiscretion amply proved what frustration can lead to. So the tough journey continues for India as it looks to get accepted in the Olympics, two years from now. That is the price for late-starters perhaps. How an era changes!